Monday, January 26, 2009

Time for a tune up

What with Toyota posting its first quarterly loss last month and our new Community-Organizer-in-Chief looking to retool the auto industry, the only good news is that gas is not $4 a gallon anymore. But these items remind me that it is time for different kind of transportation tune up, mainly our data transportation networks.

Most of us have come to rely on email as the main artery of moving data into and out of our enterprises. After all, we are all connected via email. Many office workers bring up email as their first application in the morning and even login from home at nights and on weekends. And as more people have smartphones, sending emails when you aren't at your desk isn't such a big deal now – even our COIC does that too.

I was reminded how lousy email is at transportation when I tried to email a proposal to a prospective client of mine today. First, the email didn't get through. Then I sent him an Instant Message, to confirm receipt. The second email didn't attach the document properly, and finally the third time was the charm. All this to send a 50 kB Word file – imagine if I had something larger that would be automatically rejected.

This reminds me of another story that took place many years ago, at the dawn of the Internet era when we still used gateways to get email from other networks, such as Compuserve and MCIMail (may their memories be honored). Someone had tried to send me a big attachment (at the time, that might have been about 50 kB too!) that literally got stuck in our gateway. No email could be received for several days until we figured out that the "big" file was gumming up the works, and once we deleted it all was well again.

Email is just not the best transportation vehicle. And like our struggling auto industry, we need to look for alternative-fueled methods to move our bits around.

For those of us old enough to remember file transfer protocols, there is that (and the more secure SCP) to move data from point A to point B. But these aren't very elegant, and get trapped by firewalls and other security measures, as they should be.

Then there are the various file-sending services that go by such names as, and etc. There is even, which I thought was a joke from the comic strip but is actually a legit service that I guess has some license from Scott Adams to use the hapless cubical dweller. These all operate pretty much the same way, taking the transportation over from the email network, and just using emails to notify your recipients that you have a file transfer pending. You authenticate yourself via a Web browser to both send and receive your file.

What is interesting lately is that email is also being replaced as the notification network too: either by IMs or by Twitter. I have mentioned this in my last essay, because of the generational divide and the fact that email is now too slow to notify people that live on Facebook, or just use their cell phones for Net data access, or because people get too much email and they just miss the memo in their inbox.

IMs have a lot going for them. They are easy to use, they are almost immediate, and they are now pretty much accepted in the fleets of corporate communications vehicles. But they aren't any better at transferring data than email is – and in some cases corporations block attachments, or users can't get them because they are running multiple client programs like Trillium or Adium that don't always play well with sending and receiving attachments (does this sound familiar)? And IM is ideal for one-to-one communications, but quickly breaks down when one-to-many conversations are required.

What about Twitter? This seems to have lots of promise as a notification system, although it is still somewhat creaky, sort of like when the first transcontinental railroads went in the 1800s. The network can easily get overloaded, there are all sorts of tricks like using hash tags and business people using Twitter to monitor dissatisfied customers (Bank of America and Dell are two notable examples). They can work really well for notifying a lot of people quickly about real-time events, as we have seen with recent news stories in the past several months.

The trouble is that making the transition from an all-email network to this mixed bag of technologies is proving to be just as painful as what Detroit is going through right now with its cars. Maybe upgrades to Twitter can be included in part deux of the bailout express package. After all, it comes under the heading of critical national infrastructure. (I am somewhat kidding here).

Friday, January 16, 2009

The generational media divide

I was at a meeting this week that drove home the big generational divide in online and offline media consumption. At the podium was a 20-something CEO of a new venture that is trying to work with new college grads. In the audience were people mostly twice his age of captains of industry. The young CEO was asked what he thought about using content that was similar to the way Consumer Reports rates and compares products. After a pause and a blank look, he said, "I don't know what you mean, I never heard of that publication." That got a big laugh from the audience, but his ignorance was genuine. The Q&A continued, and he mentioned a few moments later how he gets a lot of his information from the Web site Now it was the moment of being perplexed for the gentlemen sitting next to me, who leaned over to ask me if I have ever heard of such a publication. His ignorance was also the real deal.

So where do you stand on the Consumer Reports/HuffingtonPost axis? And more importantly, where do your readers stand as well? How savvy are they with using online media to get their information?

There is a growing divide in how we consume media, and it is mostly age-related. But it isn't as simple as everyone older is using this technology and younger is using that technology – there are a lot more subtle sub-groups. For example, 20-somethings that have never been to college aren't using email – they went right to texting and if they don't need email for their jobs they don't use it in their personal communications, and probably will remain away from email for a long time to come. And 50-somethings don't have much experience with social media, unless their kids are on Facebook and they signed up for defensive parental reasons, or they heard about it from a younger work colleague, for example. Almost no one is really using RSS feeds to keep track of Web content, except a few nerds and PR people. Instant Messaging has all sorts of twisted demographics, depending not just on age but also on how distributed the work team is and whether it is blessed or cursed by the corporate IT department. And so forth.

What does this mean for professional communicators? Several things. First, you have to become a master of multiple media channels and methods. Writing, speaking, podcasting, blogging, creating social network groups, filming videos, and more. You have to become omnivorous in what you consume and what you create.

Second, bylines aren't enough. So while I do write for the New York Times several times a year, that isn't enough. I should also post comments on various newspaper blogs (if it is relevant), and participate in various discussion forums.

Third, it isn't just about you but whom you know and who forwards your emails and links to your content. Is it better for the CEO of a potential client to just get a single email from me about a particular subject? Or to have five of his direct reports send the same link to something that I have posted? Or to have the post appear somewhere else that results in three new clients hiring me? You get the idea. Everything has the potential to be viral these days.

Finally, don't be afraid to experiment. The rules aren't set in stone, and while there are differences in the generations in media consumption, no one really knows how this is all going to shake out. One of the great opportunities of the Web – the ability to measure everything – is also its biggest challenge, because you don't necessarily have the ability to link cause and effect. I realized this as I was posting a new screencast video of mine last month to 15 different Web sites. Some of the sites have no traffic, some videos are rising stars. It is the same video on each site. What makes one more viewed is impossible to explain. (And by the way, if you haven't checked out my videos yet, go over to and watch one or two and let me know what you think.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Facebook, the new social disease

Accompanying the announcement that more than 150 million people are active on Facebook last week (and even more depressing, that half of them login daily) are a new series of security and legal issues surrounding its use. When exactly is your account compromised by a piece of software that may not be acting in your best interests? Or could it be something that is more sinister, or just human error?

Don't you pine for those simple days when the line between software and malware was pretty easy to delineate? Consider these news items:

Last week, Facebook sued the Brazilian site, claiming that its automated login process violated their terms of service. According to the LA Times, Power has agreed to use Facebook Connect, but the suit brings up all sorts of issues that aren't so clear cut: is Power providing a service for its users, by consolidating several social networking logins? Or is it doing something that it shouldn't, by storing these credentials? How is that different from any number of sites that allow me to cross-post messages to different video or blog sites?

Last December, we saw the Koobface trojan that spreads through social network news feed messages, prompting users to download what they think is an update to the Adobe Flash player but is really malware:

This was similar to a Brazilain-based attack that plagued Twitter last summer:

Earlier last fall over in Russia, we saw email/SMS pitches for people to download a Java applet to their cell phones that was spread via the Russian social network Vkontakte. Once on their phones, the app would automatically text several premium numbers that would be charged back to the user:

The trouble is that as these attacks proliferate, it gets harder to differentiate them with legit situations where people are just making dumb mistakes. Consider the situation where a new social networking user doesn't understand the very optional step when he or she signs up and is asked whether or not to send email invitations to their entire address book. In just a few seconds, a simple task of joining the network has turned into an annoying one sending out hundreds of unwanted emails. Sometimes this step isn't explained well in the sign-up process, or sometimes people aren't paying attention. Either way, it isn't malevolent; it is just a stupid user error.

Or take instant messaging, which seems so quaint now that there are lots of other networks out there. Yes, there are malware programs that propagate through IM, and there are security products that protect IM networks too. But nothing can stop human stupidity in how these IM networks are used, particularly if you store your IM login credentials on a family computer that is shared by several people. One of my colleagues has been having IM conversations with the wrong people – some that have gone on for ten or 15 minutes, before he realized he was talking to the intended's spouse or kids. Why anyone leave his or her IM account wide open in this way is hard to understand. But it points out that just because someone is signed into IM, doesn't mean that they are there. Remember, on the Internet no one knows that your dog hasn't logged instead of you.

Then there are sites like that use your login information for IM networks, supposedly to make it easier to connect but in reality spam all of your contacts on your buddy list. is another one. I have tried to find out whether these two sites are legit or have some sinister purpose. I can't really tell, but I would recommend steering clear of both of them.

So the next time you get an email or IM or text message asking you to download a greeting card, update your Flash player, or do something else, take a moment to stop and think whether this is a request that you should just hit the delete key and move on. You don't need to be the latest victim of a new social networking disease.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Starting the New Year with Windows NT 4

To start off the new year right, I decided to go back in time and see what I could learn from running an ancient (by computing standards, anyway) operating system and software combination. To appreciate how far we have come (or not), and to see whether I could actually get real work done. The idea came about from some conversations that Jason Perlow and I had. Jason is a fellow blogger and IT consultant who now works for IBM. He and I at one point in our lives (although not at the same time) lived in Port Washington, N.Y. and spent a lot of time with OS/2, but don't let that influence you.

I picked NT v4 as my starting place. This operating system is more than ten years old, and was probably the last OS that Microsoft created that had some real simplicity to it. To get an idea of the power of the OS, there are still many corporate servers running it, even though Microsoft has tried to stamp it out and turn off support and push people to upgrade to something more recent. To get around the driver issues and other challenges, I decided to set up a virtual machine running NT, and I am using VMware's Fusion on my Mac (just to make it interesting).

Jason and I have the hypothesis that the OS doesn't really matter anymore, and that if you can get beyond some of the issues with running older software and applications, you may find that an older OS is perfect for your needs. We also thought that running an ancient OS was a good way to see how far we have come with newer computers, and perhaps a way to extract some additional performance because the older OSs are smaller and theoretically could run faster on the newer PCs.

To get NT working properly, you need find versions of software either online or in someone's attic that are not so old as to be useless. First off, I had to install Service Pack 6, and I also needed to install the right version of the SP too for the encryption level of the OS. You then install the VMware tools software, which supplies the drivers to get the most out of your machine. Then you install Microsoft Office 2000 – which is the most recent version of Office that will run on NT. I messed up by installing the tools package after Office, and VMware didn't like that. Office 2000 has the unfortunate side effect of updating your NT version with an almost-working version of Internet Explorer v5. The reason I say almost-working is that you need another piece of software called the Windows Installer to get other software installed on this machine. I couldn't get past this point, however.

I also put on Firefox v2.0.0.20 browser on the machine, which is a fairly recent version of the browser, but apparently not recent enough as I had some problems with certain Web sites. I had to update my Adobe Flash plug-in too. Finally, I added AIM v5.9, which is an older version of Instant Messenger software. Skype doesn't have any version that will run on NT, which is too bad.

So what I found was that the VM version of NT was pretty snappy. It would boot from scratch in under 30 seconds, and faster still from the suspended VM state. I liked the old-fashioned Windows and the lack of glitz and raw simplicity of the controls. No Aero Glass junk for this OS! Another plus with using VMs is that you don't have to worry about personal firewalls and anti-virus as much – you can set up a protected environment and keep it isolated from your host machine, which is good because most of the AV programs have stopped supporting NT a long time ago.

All of my Office documents – some of which were created on Macs, some on Windows, came up just fine in Office 2000, which is because I am not using the 2007 version that introduced a new file format that isn't compatible with the older versions. Shame on you Microsoft – and I know from hearing from some of you how vexing that version could be.

The other thing I noticed is how important the browser is to today's computing world, and if you aren't willing to stay current with your browser, you quickly get into trouble with many Web sites. The coming of IE v7 is a good case in point, and I know there will be a lot of grief to be had on both ends – the people that adopt the new browser and find sites that don't work in it, and the sites that want to use its new features and piss off the people that aren't upgrading yet.

I will have more to report on this experiment as I spend more time back in NT land. And those of you that want to try this on your own, email me privately and I will give you more specific tips.

About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.